Ultramorphs, Xenomorphs, and Weapons of War

deacon_alien_prometheus_born

In the closing moments of Prometheus Shaw and David, having struck an uneasy alliance, dart for the Engineer homeworld and leave LV-223 behind them. “There is nothing here but death,” Shaw narrates. But in the wreckage of Vickers’ escape pod the Engineer suddenly shudders to life – his chest cleaves open and a new life-form emerges: a spindly-limbed creature known as the Deacon, or, as the early script by Jon Spaihts call him, the Ultramorph.

“I wrote five different drafts of the script,” explained Spaihts, “working with Ridley very closely over about nine months. And even as we were working, we were constantly toying with the closeness of the monsters in the film to the original Xenomorph. You can see an interesting balance, even looking at the movies in the Alien franchise, between homage and evolution. In every film you’ll see that the design of the Alien shifts -the shape of the carapace, the shape of the body- and some of that is to do with new technology available to realise the monsters, but a lot of is just a director’s desire to do something new.”

“And so he was always pushing for some way in which that Alien biology could have evolved,” he continued. “We tried different paths in that way. We imagined that there might be eight different variations on the Xenomorphs – eight different kinds of Alien eggs you might stumble across, eight kinds of slightly different Xenomorph creatures that could hatch from them. And maybe even a rapid process of evolution, still ongoing, in these Alien laboratories where these Xenomorphs were developed. So Ridley and I were looking for ways to make the Xenomorphs new.”

One of the new Alien variants would be the Engineer-Alien; the creature that presumably erupted from the chest of the Space Jockey in Alien.

Alien insects: Again, just as they did on Alien, Ridley and the creative team turned to the brutal insect world for inspiration. Spaihts told Empire magazine: “Ridley is a great and ghoulish collector of horrible natural oddities, real parasites and predators from the natural world. He had a tremendous file of photography of real, ghastly creatures from around the world – they’re chilling, some of them! He would tell these tales with relish, of wasps that would drill into the backs of beetles and plant larvae, or become mind-control creatures. Terrible things happen, especially the smaller you get. As you get into the insect world or the microbial world, savage atrocities are perpetrated by one creature on another. And Ridley was thrilled with all of them. They inspired a lot of the designs and a lot of the ideas we tried.”

An Alien born from a Space Jockey is an angle already explored in the series’ expanded universe. One appeared in the comic book Aliens: Apocalypse – The Destroying Angels, and another in the Nintendo DS game Aliens: Infestation - both designs bore no similarity to one another, the Jockey-Alien being an unseen element in the films. Artists were free to render it as they wished. The hypothetical creature has also been the subject of fanart over the last few years. Spaihts’ Alien: Engineers movie would have been the first in the movie canon to depict the monster.

Concept of the Engineer-Alien.

Concept of the Engineer-Alien.

Alien: Engineers, as Spaihts’ script was called, would also expand Ridley’s notion that the Alien was a weapon of war and not a naturally occurring creature in its own right. The Alien had long been theorised to be an unnatural creation. In addition to Ridley’s ideas about the origin and purpose of the Alien, James Cameron also considered the theory that the Jockey may have been on a mission of either peace or war: “Perhaps he was a volunteer or a draftee on the hazardous mission of bio-isolating these organisms,” he said in an issue of Starlog magazine, before also postulating: “Perhaps he was a military pilot, delivering the Alien eggs as a bio-weapon in some ancient interstellar war humans know nothing of, and got infected inadvertently.”

The idea was explored in almost every one of Alien 3′s many scripts, which saw the Company’s weapons division attempting to domesticate an Alien for their own purposes. In David Twohy’s Alien III the antagonist Dr. Lone recognises their lethal potential: “Company assets are, as you know, many and far-reaching,” he says, justifying his use of Aliens as weapons, “There will always be a need for defensive weapons.” In Eric Red’s Alien III, Dr. Rand comes to the same conclusion: “This organism, on a cellular, even a molecular level, is purely and totally predatory. We have never encountered an organism that had its characteristics… or its potential.” Dr. Rand goes on to confidently declare to an audience that she has tamed the Alien for future military applications. She approaches the creature and…

“The Alien’s first set of jaws open, piledriver jaws jackhammering the back of Dr. Rand’s head, exploding it off her shoulders in a shower of meat. Her decapitated, spurting body collapses to the floor.”

… its obedience was feigned. The Aliens likewise pretend to be obedient in an issue of the early Dark Horse comics – when the moment is right, they unerringly strike, to the shock of their would-be masters. The Alien seems to be a fantastic weapon, save for one element: control. Alien Resurrection and many of the expanded universe stories explored not only the Aliens’ tenacity and single-minded will, but also their intelligence and ability to quietly strategise amongst themselves when under duress.

Lack of control is a long running theme of the series (first hinted at in the first movie: the Space Jockey is clearly shown to have fallen victim to his cargo) and even containment is an arduous task. Ash is more content to allow the Alien to run amok; analysing and admiring the creature’s lethality seems to be his kick. Though he sabotages any attempt to expel or harm the Alien, he likewise makes no move to contain or communicate with it – he may have deduced that it may not be possible to do so. In Alien 3 the Company’s intention to capture the Alien is dismissed by Ripley as being futile and self-destructive. “They can’t control it, they don’t understand it, it will kill them all.” She would know. After all, her plan to trap the Alien only briefly succeeded.

In Spaihts’ screenplay the Engineer facility on LV-426 (LV-223 after Lindelof’s rewrite) is a testament to the Alien’s unsuppressible nature. The creatures there, some time ago, managed to infect and annihilate their creators. One Engineer (called the “Sleeper”) manages to stow himself away in cryosleep, and is found eons later by the protagonists of the story, who rouse him from his rest. The Engineer attacks the humans and launches his ship, the Juggernaut, but succumbs to the Alien’s birth pangs:

“In the pilot chair, the Sleeper convulses. An ALIEN erupts from his chest. Big as a wolf even at its birth. Dark grey, armoured, lethal. More hideous than any chestburster we’ve seen. An ULTRAMORPH. It wails hideously. The Sleeper dies. The Alien slithers free.”
Alien: Engineers, by Jon Spaihts.

Janek and Shaw take advantage of the Juggernaut’s loss of control and ram their own ship into it. Both ships subsequently crash and the Ultramorph rises from the wreckage and stalks Shaw, who eventually kills it with a diamond-tipped saw.

But the Ultramorph was not the only Alien to feature in the original script. Different variations cropped up throughout the story, including an alabaster, dolphin-headed Xenomorph that is born from Holloway. The classical Giger Alien is pulled form Shaw’s body during the MedPod scene, and she quickly dispatches it once the creature reaches maturation – “I brought it in,” Shaw tells Captain Janek, hefting her gun, “I took it out.”

The Holloway Alien however is given some time to rampage through the ship, and kills many of the crew.

orig_creatures302

“It is a humanoid demon, spindly limbs and bony back. Boneless and flexible and monstrously strong. A threshing eel’s tail. Its blunt head dolphin-like and elongated … A nightmare image, a translucent white goblin. Backlit, it shows the strange shape of a human face inside its fleshy skull. A mockery of Holloway.
And then it’s gone.”
~ Alien: Engineers, by Jon Spaihts.

This particular Alien is able to sift through vents and small spaces, and its carapace only barely masks a leering human skull – just like the original Alien from the 1979 movie. Spaihts talked to Empire about the Holloway Alien’s appearance: “We toyed with the notion that the Xenomorphs might have a soft carapace like a soft-shelled crab, and be flexible and able to squeeze through cracks; that they might be pale rather than black; that they might retain inside some gelatinous cowl some resemblance of the human being in whom they’d incubated. We played with a lot of ghoulish notions like that.”

When the script was rewritten by Damon Lindelof (as a script titled Paradise) these Alien creatures were cut and replaced by other monsters. The Ultramorph, retooled as the Deacon, was saved for the closing scenes, but it never encounters any of the film’s human characters. Where it goes after its birth is not known, its intelligence and motives can only be guessed at, and some called its inclusion an unnecessary and overly obvious tip of the hat to the Alien series, from which Prometheus had previously seemed desperate to divorce itself.

The design of the Deacon primarily fell to conceptual artist Carlos Huante, who was keen to explore Giger-esque forms and shapes. Many of his initial designs mimic early Alien concept pieces, but Ridley, as he did with other conceptual artist Neville Page, steered Huante away from mimicking the Giger’s style, but Huante found the influence irrepressible. “The genesis of that character came after a conversation I had with Ridley about a design progression of the creatures to the Xenomorph of the first film,” he told AVPGalaxy. “I went home and thought about it, but kept on with the Giger-esque Ultramorphs.”

Once I realized that this film’s timeline was taking place before the Giger-esque aesthetic would come into effect, I started homing in on a design aesthetic [that] I felt would complement the beautiful Giger style that saturated the first film. I wanted everything white and embryonic. Ridley and I were right in tune with each other on this. I mean, Ridley was looking at paintings that had white ghost-like creatures, as reference for the Engineers. I loved the idea of pale white and started developing that as an overall concept for all the creatures.”
~ Carlos Huante, Prometheus: The Art of the Film, 2012.

“Then as I worked I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if these Aliens, who are born of humans and haven’t been mixed genetically with the Engineers yet, would look more human and less biomechanical?’ Of course this was for a different version of the script, but that’s where the Deacon (or Bishop, as he was originally named) came from. He later became an Ultramorph and as the script changed slightly after I left the show, it became that thing at the end.”

The original concept of the Deacon looked similar to the Holloway-Alien in that it was tall, pale, and its head headed in a point.

The original concept of the Deacon looked similar to the Holloway-Alien in that it was tall, pale, and its head ended in a point.

The Deacon became a shade of blue in other pieces...

The Deacon became a shade of blue in other pieces. Huante explained that blue tone was used to emphasise its whiteness in varying shades of darkness. Its skin also had a translucent quality…

Other pieces showed the Deacon as smaller, fowl-like and coloured a darkening blue.

In other concepts it was imagined as smaller, fowl-like and coloured a darkening blue.

As the design went through different permutations Ridley decided to move away from the ‘Ultramorph’ name for something else. At first it was referred to as ‘Bishop’, but this became ‘Deacon’ for obvious reasons. “It looks like a bishop’s mitre, the evil deacon’s pointed hat,” explained Arthur Max.

The Deacon in the film is not as magisterial as the concept art, which depicted a fully-grown Alien rising from the caracss of the Engineer. The film opts to show the Deacon as a vulnerable creature that rises but tumbles as it is born: it is connected to its host via an umbilical cord and is sustained by an egg sac for feeding upon.

“Foals are gangly and ungraceful,” explained Neil Scanlan, “but have to grow quickly. A foal or a giraffe, if they’re born in the wild, out in the open, have to get on their own feet and get ambulatory very quickly. They’re ungainly, but they develop fast, and that’s what we wanted, so that was the strategy with the Deacon.”

As for its skin tone, Scanlan said: “The quality of the Deacon’s skin is based on the placenta when a horse gives birth. Steve [Messing] managed to get it — something between horrific and beautiful with the way he rendered the quality of the surface treatment. It had a sort of iridescent quality we really wanted. So it was kind of beautiful-scary.”

But Carlos Huante was not impressed by the Deacon’s dark blue skin and design changes from picture to film. “Why it was blue?” he said to AVPGalaxy. “I don’t know… The illustration was blue so as to emphasize its whiteness in a dark blue setting, and I was following some inspirational paintings that a contemporary Russian painter did of a man’s head that Arthur [Max] had sent me from Ridley. The creatures were all supposed to be albino. They were supposed to look simple, beautiful and ghostly, like a Beluga whale in dark Arctic water.”

1013565_604167139623066_756468154_n

“I wish I could have stayed on to supervise the follow-through with the designs,” he explained further. “My biggest disappointment is that what I did got modified, of course. Any artist would say that. But I really thought they were going to make my Deacon, but for some really strange reason they went with the one from the storyboards which was not my character and not the design.”

Huante reckoned that the production took note from the film’s storyboards rather than his concept art. “The board artist illustrated it for the purposes of storytelling for the storyboards but not as the design,” he said. “The design of the actual Deacon was abandoned … I’m shaking my head as I write this.”

When they met in London in early 2011 Ridley toured Giger around the film’s production offices, showing him the concept art of the various creatures. Giger, sitting at a desk with Scott, sketched some tentative alterations that ultimately were not integrated into the final designs.

deacongigerconcepts

THE ENGINEER lies on the ground, STILL.
Next to it, the TROGLYBYTE. Equally motionless looking very much like a DEAD OCTOPUS. And then…

THE ENGINEER’S BODY STARTS TO TWITCH.

His ABDOMEN slowly rises — SOMETHING IS MOVING — UNDULATING BENEATH HIS SKIN LIKE A MASSIVE PYTHON — PRESSING AGAINST IT. AGAIN. AND AGAIN. AND – BURSTS OUT OF THE ENGINEER’S CHEST. A CRYSTALLINE PLACENTAL SAC FLOPS ONTO THE GROUND WITH A SICKENING SPLASH OF VISCOUS FLUID
– And now –
A RAZOR SHARP POINT PUNCTURES THE SACK FROM WITHIN — SOAKING  THE CARPET WITH GOOP as it TEARS OPEN and in MAGNIFICENT GLORIOUS FASHION –
AN OOZING, ASTONISHING CREATURE — A DEACON — SLITHERS TO THE GROUND LIKE A HORRIFIC TUNA. FIERCE. TERRIFYING.
And it rises to it’s full TERRIFYING HEIGHT. Takes its FIRST STEPS towards the OPENING at the end of the room.

EXT. PLANET, CRASH SITE, VICKERS’ MODULE – DAY

Stands there now — SURVEYING THE PLANET with the cold, detached air of a HUNTER.
~ Paradise, by Damon Lindelof.

The reaction to the Deacon was mixed. It hasn’t gained any of the stature of Aliens from the previous movies, though many fans are optimistic to see the creature as an adult. Its appearance in Prometheus can be compared to that of the newly-born dog Alien in the third movie – both creatures had yet to shed and mature into adults.

Some fans also humorously pointed out that the Deacon bore an unfortunate resemblance to monsters from other films, most notably the alien monster from the comedic Alien vs. Ninja:

The Deacon rod puppet from the film's climax.

The Deacon rod puppet from the film’s climax.

8 Comments

Filed under Prometheus

8 responses to “Ultramorphs, Xenomorphs, and Weapons of War

  1. Correction in the last image, caption should read “The Deacon rod puppet from the film’s anticlimax” ;-)

  2. Interesting to see that the concept artist was not happy with their final take on the Deacon. Putting aside any other issues with the film, it just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the creatures seen throughout the movie, which all had that pale semi-transparent look.

  3. Reblogged this on Deep Space from the Deep South and commented:
    Ah, the horror of it all…

    Another great post from my friend at ‘Strange Shapes’!

  4. Gaius

    The more I see of the behind-the-scenes work on Prometheus, and the more I think about it, the more disappointed I become. In order to understand why, let us take a look at Alien.

    In hindsight, Alien derived its power from a number of factors, some of which are conceptual and some of which are practical:

    It is a high-concept film (often described as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in space) executed with very high production values
    It is an example of excellent film-making craft in terms of editing, pacing, casting, setting-and-set design and practical effects: the film builds tension slowly but relentlessly over time against a gritty, used-future background
    The xenomorph broke new ground in terms of its physical morphology (biomechanical appearance, phallic and vaginal signifiers), life cycle (the famous birth scene), capabilities, and semiotic functions (it begins its life via an act of rape and a male birth, it kills people with phalluses, etc.)
    The decision to write the character who would later become Ripley as gender-neutral — either a man or a woman could have played the part. Consequently, casting Ripley as a woman set the character apart from other female protagonists of the time and also contributed to the discourse of women in film and in the workplace
    The xenomorph and its origins are both uncanny (uncanny being the familiar in an unfamiliar place — “Hey, why is there a vaginal opening on the hull of an alien space ship?”) and eldritch (that which is eldritch is unknowable to the point that trying to understand it will drive one mad); though the eldritch nature of the Space Jockey (Engineers) was only hinted in the final film, it was much more elaborate in both earlier drafts of the Alien script and in John Spaits’ prequel

    I consider these to be the primary factors that contributed to Alien‘s success within the context of the political economy of the day. These same elements would not contribute to a successful film these days because they have already been done.

    Turning now to Prometheus, why did I find it so disappointing?

    In part, it attempted to explain and demystify the Engineers — in short, to make them not-eldritch.

    The eldritch is unknowable; it literally can’t be known. If you can explain it, it’s not eldritch (though it’s okay to fail spectacularly when trying to explain eldritch concepts). Furthermore, the very concept of a narrative implies cause-and-effect relationships, and cause-effect relationships are anathema to the eldritch.

    This is not to say that a narrative cannot invoke eldritch things — after all, Alien did so. But if you invoke them and then explain them in ways that make sense from a cause-effect perspective, that’s not eldritch, that’s Lovecraft Lite.

    Within the context of Alien, we never knew why the xenomorphs were created, what functioned they serve. Some saw them as bioweapons; others envisioned them as part of a complex reproductive cycle. But we never know for sure.

    So, the first thing I disliked about Prometheus is that it’s Lovecraft Lite — it’s trying to explain the Engineers and what they did.

    The SECOND thing I didn’t like about it is that it is both literally and figuratively trying to cast a light in formerly dark places — not just to illuminate the origin of the xenomorphs and the motives of the Engineers (and, indeed, humanity itself), but to show more of the monsters with their fancy CGI.

    In Alien, you got to see plenty of the adult xenomorph’s head and not much of the rest of it. This is no doubt due, in part, to the creative team desiring to show as little as possible, because our imagination does the work — many found Lambert’s death to be one of the most traumatic in the film precisely because we didn’t SEE it.

    But there is a third reason: when you get right down to it, the xenomorph is just a tall thin guy in a suit, and when you see that, it takes away the unknowable-ness of it. “It’s just a costume.” Admittedly, it is an exquisitely designed costume, but it is a costume nonetheless.

    But with CGI, you can show more without having to worry about the suit spoiling it.

    And so they showed more — more of the Engineers, more of their creations, etc.

    My final complaint: bioweapons and the origin of human life. Is that the best you can do with such rich source material? I would be slightly more interested if the Engineers had modified our biosphere to produce life in their own image as part of their reproductive process. It would be a nice callback to the source material — the sacrifice of an entire planetary biosphere, and, indeed, an entire race to potentially create just two more Engineers (it would have to be two, to justify the sacrifice at the beginning of the film). That would be downright fascinating, but it would also demand changes in the film, both in narrative and tone. That said: it, too, would risk revealing too much about the Engineers, making them less eldritch by giving their bioengineering motives.

    On a related note: Alien was relevant: feminism, the plight of the corporate worker, the rise of faceless conglomerates heedless of the human costs (“CREW EXPENDABLE”) and risks of their ventures.

    By comparison: how is a fantasy about the origin of human life and our hypothetical creators remotely relevant? It would be relevant, perhaps, if the Engineers deemed us a failed creation we had made such a mess of the planet.

    There are other issues, of course — for example, Prometheus doesn’t seem to know what kind of film it wants to be. It cannot decide whether or not its purpose is discovery, horror, action, or something else. It becomes something of a theme-park ride, like most modern cinema.

    Lastly, the script of the film does not do the material or the actors justice.

    Just my two cents.

    • Gaius

      My apologies — apparently, wordpress does not support bulleted lists. The list of things about Alien should have been bulleted. I will list it here in paragraph form:

      In hindsight, Alien derived its power from a number of factors, some of which are conceptual and some of which are practical:

      1). It is a high-concept film (often described as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in space) executed with very high production values.

      2). It is an example of excellent film-making craft in terms of editing, pacing, casting, setting-and-set design and practical effects: the film builds tension slowly but relentlessly over time against a gritty, used-future background.

      3). The xenomorph broke new ground in terms of its physical morphology (biomechanical appearance, phallic and vaginal signifiers), life cycle (the famous birth scene), capabilities, and semiotic functions (it begins its life via an act of rape and a male birth, it kills people with phalluses, etc.)

      4). The decision to write the character who would later become Ripley as gender-neutral — either a man or a woman could have played the part. Consequently, casting Ripley as a woman set the character apart from other female protagonists of the time and also contributed to the discourse of women in film and in the workplace.

      5). The xenomorph and its origins are both uncanny (uncanny being the familiar in an unfamiliar place — “Hey, why is there a vaginal opening on the hull of an alien space ship?”) and eldritch (that which is eldritch is unknowable to the point that trying to understand it will drive one mad); though the eldritch nature of the Space Jockey (Engineers) was only hinted in the final film, it was much more elaborate in both earlier drafts of the Alien script and in John Spaits’ prequel.

  5. Gaius, I agree 100%.

    My general observation about this excellent post (keep up the good work, this is one of my favorite blogs currently on the internet) is that it was pointless from Ridley scott to try to distance the creature design from Giger’s work. For one thing, Giger’s work is so iconic, that if Prometheus takes place in the same universe, then the creatures must be Giger-esque. No doubt about it.

    The urns are way too similar to the eggs. The Engineer’s exo-suits (oh, another disappointment by the way…) are 100% Giger’s creation. What’s inside, is not, but that’s such a letdown and not even artistic, just a human albino face. The Fifield-zombie was just that: a zombie with no added value (as one of the previous posts explained, Ridley Scott insisted on making it “more human”, thus killed off all surprise and suspense and all of the eldritch-ness of it). The octopus-alien is way too similar to the facehugger. And then there is the Deacon, which is obviously inspired by Giger’s work, it’s in fact a washed-out version of a Giger drawing, a downgrade, a Giger Lite, if you will.

    So Ridley Scott desperately tries to turn his back to Giger’s designs, and the result is that the Hammerpede and the Engineer’s face are the only things that can’t be traced back to Giger. And these are not good. The rest of the movie blatantly features Giger-esque design attempts, which are just that: attempts. But you can’t do Giger without Giger (duh!) so these were bound to fail.

    In summary: designs in Prometheus that are not Giger-based are not good on their own right, and what is Giger-based is not Giger, so it’s not good enough. Conclusion: none of Prometheus’s creature design is worth a damn. Combine this with Lindelof’s Lovecraft Lite (excellent trope to associate with the movie BTW!) scriptwriting, and Ridley Scott’s crippling back and forth between this being and alien movie and being an entirely new universe with “a bit of an alien DNA” (just make that damn decision, for crying out loud!), and you got yourself a real disappointment. Conclusion: Ridley Scott had no vision for this movie at all.

    • Your baseless conclusion is an insult to the work that was put in this movie – all of it shown in details in the Art of the Film book and the documentary Furious Gods.

    • Everything in Prometheus – both thematically and in terms of design – is what Scott had been wanting to make before even Aliens was announced, give or take a few elements. I think most naysayers are just nitpicking a concept they would never have liked, anyway. This film never had a chance with die-hard fans who just wanted Scott to remake the 1979 film.

Collate...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s